Contra Mundum Comes Home: Brideshead Revisited, Your Gay Relative, and a Twitch Upon the Thread

2017-06-18T19:31:35+00:00June 16th, 2017|Blog, Christ, Our Lady & the Saints, Sons of St. Joseph|

(Pictured above: Jeremy Irons as Charles, Anthony Andrews as Sebastian, and Jonathan Coy as Kurt in the 1981 UK miniseries “Brideshead Revisited.”)

The 1945 novel “Brideshead Revisited” by English Catholic-convert Evelyn Waugh maintains an odd cult-status within the gay male community. At first glance, this distinction is peculiar since the book ultimately details one man’s journey through decadence, faithlessness, adultery, disillusionment to eventual personal renewal in newfound hope through Catholicism. But the focus of attention among gay men has always been on the first part of the book which centers upon the homoerotic relationship between Sebastian Flyte and the novel’s protagonist and narrator Charles Ryder. The exuberance and glamour of the relationship was only intensified in 1981 by the lush retelling of the story when the novel was adapted into a lengthy miniseries for television in the UK; in addition, the incredible attractiveness of the two main male actors, and the beauty and magnificence of the sets and wardrobes, seemed to symbolize the height of gay pop-culture aesthetics during the waning years of the 1970s disco era – just before the onset of AIDS.

The relationship between Sebastian and Charles is always tinged with this gloom of sadness – with the specter of impending doom. For Sebastian is the self-destructive alcoholic beautiful boy, the son of an aristocratic Catholic Lord and his staunchly religious wife. Lord Marchmain, abandoned the family when Sebastian was a young boy. By the time Charles begins his friendship with Sebastian, Lord Marchmain lives in semi-exile with his long-time mistress in Venice. Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain, is a pious somewhat cold woman who is caring but unable to reach out to her son. She symbolizes for Sebastian his duty to faith, the Truth, and to God. Sebastian in many ways conforms to the image of the classic-gay-boy syndrome: a young man with abandonment and or abuse issues concerning the father, a domineering mother, and a highly conscientious, sensitive, and obsessive temperament. This type was depicted by another English author in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis with the character of Edmund Pevensie. The younger boy in a family of four children, Edmund suffers from the loss of his military father, who is away at war, and feels oppressed by the strong-arm of his older more reliable and responsible brother named Peter. Consequently, he rebels and becomes susceptible to the diversions of quick pleasure, flattery and narcissism as well as addiction. Edmund remains obstinate until he reaches a crisis point; this occurs when he is exposed to the elements, near frozen, and hunched down in the sleigh of his savior turned tormentor – the evil White Witch. Then:

He would have given anything to meet the others at that moment – even Peter! The only way to comfort himself now was to try to believe that the whole thing was a dream and that he might wake up at any moment.

Edmund has become the Prodigal Son reduced to the mud and the pigs. Despite his previous seemingly intransigent stubbornness, he wants to go back to his family. Yet in Sebastian’s complicated relationship with his mother, he is the Prodigal that never left home; instead he remains endlessly conflicted and unable to escape degeneracy nor embrace redemption.

Charles Ryder is not a homosexual, but because of his austere upbringing by a distant uninterested widower father, he is instantly attracted to the charismatic and intriguing Sebastian. For Charles, Sebastian represents everything that is exciting and glamorous. But their attachment is more than just superficial, Charles as an avowed agnostic verging on atheism sees the religious family of Sebastian as oppressive and the fundamental source of his friend’s suffering. Sebastian, like Lord Byron and the Romantics, is a symbol of rebellion; Contra mundum…Sebastian against the world.

This scenario plays out often among the friends and family members of a homosexual; especially in the circle of allies around a gay male. Like Sebastian, gay men can often be both outrageous and incredibly empathetic; they exist on the boarders, often inviting the abused and the disregarded into their ranks. In “Brideshead Revisited,” this is represented by Sebastian’s friendship with the persecuted and pugnacious Antony Blanche. And, as with a number of gay men, Sebastian’s rebellion against social conventions results in personal loss and suffering. There is a sort of self-victimization through the desperate search for escape and meaning in excess. In Charles, this elicits an instinctual need to support and protect Sebastian. He loves his friend, but he also doesn’t want to lose him or lose his favor. This confusion between friendship and facilitation often results in mutual dysfunction.

As Charles mirrors the blind loyalty that many have towards their “gay” friends and relatives, even as they see the one they supposedly love slowly destroy themselves, at times, Sebastian’s mother is a metaphor for all distraught parents with a “gay” child. She refuses to cast her son out, but she can’t condone what he is doing. Her character also plays out the tragedy of single-mothers, in attempting to be both father and mother, she fails at both. This conflict results in an unsettling atmosphere of silent tension whenever Sebastian and his family are together, hence he avoids such situations. At home, Sebastian is reminded of his failings. After dinner, his mother reads from Chesterton’s “Father Brown” then retires to their family chapel for the Rosary before going off to bed. His older upstanding and stoic brother Brideshead (or “Bridey”) is a believer who once thought about becoming a priest; as is the convent-educated Cordelia, the youngest child of the family. Of his eldest sister, Sebastian remarked: “Julia and I are half-heathen.” Lady Marchmain has retreated into the world of prayer. She is not unlike St. Monica; with Sebastian (as Augustine) once saying to Charles:

‘Who was it used to pray, “O God, make me good but not yet”?’

But there is a codependency connecting Sebastian and his mother often set off by a need for propriety and appearances that is altogether absent in the relationship of St. Augustine with Monica. As in many families, there is a need for the facade of normality; when the relative with a same-sex partner is invited for Thanksgiving – and its dinner as usual. But Sebastian’s mother must be both Lord and Lady. When she should be strong, she becomes enabling; she first directs the household staff that they must not serve liquor to Sebastian then relents and allows him to drink. I met women such as her before; they have a difficult time saying “No” to their children and sticking with that decision – particularly with their sons. Usually guilty over the break-up of a marriage, and the absence of a father, these sincere but misguided women attempt to make restitution with their children by becoming overly benevolent. The worst case I ever personally witnessed was a mother who accompanied her son, with the young man in his early-twenties only wearing a jock-strap and sandals, to one of the San Francisco gay sex fairs. Without the complimentary of a father and mother in his life, Sebastian is simultaneously weakly reprimanded and smothered. While I suppose there is the rare woman who has the gravitas to fulfill both roles, Sebastian’s mother does not. Instead, her attempts to act as father causes hatred towards her. The catty Antony Blanche describes her as a sort of blood-sucker with Sebastian and Julia exhibiting avoidance, indifference, or hatred towards their mother. Cordelia observed: “When people wanted to hate God they hated mummy.” In the male homosexual, who reverently honors and worships the hyper-masculine, her upsetting of gender roles is highly disturbing. It’s not surprising that as Sebastian races towards destruction he ends up with a man, who Blanche describes as similar to the passably handsome masculine ghoul (see picture above) he once say in a German Expressionist film. With most “gay” men, the quest for the masculine and paternal swerves towards obsession, fetishism, and decadence. It’s an escape from the mother towards the father that becomes a horror show. In contemporary Western culture, the depravation and desperation of modern gay life is continually apparent in the extraordinarily high rates of sexual transmitted infections among homosexual males, the curious epidemic of gay clinical depression, and the culture of drug-fueled chemsex. In the roaring-1920s, you see the beginnings of apathetic club-culture when Charles follows a bored Anthony Blanche to an underground gay bar. In the miniseries, a seminal moment occurs when a trashed and tired Charles and Anthony recline on a bed as listless revelers look indifferent during a drunken house party – no one pays attention as a dazed naked man walks by. Charles recognizes the same pervasive hopelessness in his friend. Disaster seems to loom ahead. Sebastian’s inability to change course is reminiscent of the songs from the English-born singer Morrissey and his earlier band The Smiths. Their music is tinged with a constant half-hearted allegiance to a destiny from which they see no other alternative resulting in a suicidal malaise. The Pet Shop Boys, featuring the gay and Catholic-educated Neil Tennant, dealt with the same subject matter in their single “It’s a Sin:”

When I look back upon my life
It’s always with a sense of shame
I’ve always been the one to blame
For everything I long to do
No matter when or where or who
Has one thing in common, too
It’s a, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a sin…

Following the illness and unexpected death of his mother, a support system is gone and Sebastian is finally allowed to crash to the floor and there is no one around to pick up the pieces. He pushes away Charles, and leaves England to set up residence in North Africa with an ill-mannered German syphilic boyfriend named Kurt. The tragedy of his life is encapsulated in a pathetic little scene where the very sickly Sebastian, just released from the hospital, must hobble around his tiny house to find a pack of cigarettes for his half-lame lover. Charles will never see him again.

Years later, from Cordelia, Charles finds out what happened to his friend. Still with Kurt, Sebastian leaves North Africa for Greece. Things go well for awhile, until Kurt is deported back to Germany where he eventually kills himself in a concentration camp. A sullen Sebastian returns to where he met his boyfriend and begins to drink himself to death. When Cordelia goes in search of her long lost brother, she finds him in the infirmary of a Catholic monastery. She tells Charles what she believes will be the eventual fate of Sebastian: “I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God.” Sebastian will enter the monastery as a lay brother, but will intermittently disappear to drink, only to return “disheveled and shamefaced” and “more devout for a day or two in chapel.” She continued: “He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected.” Charles thinks it an odd end for Sebastian. Cordelia believes her brother has found redemption in suffering: “No one is very holy without suffering.”

In my estimation, the fate of Sebastian is indicative of the path taken by a number of male homosexuals who return to faith. They are usually the type of man, like Sebastian, who launches full throttle into the gay experience. And also similar to Sebastian, these are men traumatized by their youth; by memories of an absent and unloving father or a domineering mother who sometimes tries to overcompensate when she intuitively sees that her son is struggling. Only the trauma is never fully addressed which activates an insatiable need to dull the pain. As a result, the pre-homosexual boy often arrives at a stage where he “comes-out” following a childhood intermittently filled with hurt feelings, periods of isolation, and peculiar sensitivities that are apparent to everyone around him. Especially in women, this outsider status of the odd misfit invokes maternal protectionism. For this reason, it’s not unusual for the pre-homosexual boy to often gravitate towards adolescent friendships with girls instead of other boys. In this peculiar environment, these boys will sometimes develop a fascination for fashion, gossip, and pop-stars that endures into adulthood. In the pre-homosexual boy there is a feminine attraction to the emotionalism of devotion and memory – as seen in the ecstatic screams of teen-girls at rock concerts; in young men and adult males, the preoccupations are more narrowly laser focused on gaming, the methodical collecting and organization of matchbox cars and baseball cards, as well as the instantaneous recollection of sporting scores and player averages. Women tend towards the chatty romanticism of unfulfilled longing from Danielle Steel to “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Homosexual men share the same daydream of a heroic rescuer. But where women are collaborative, sometimes becoming indecisive, in their decision making process – for example, calling friends and asking for input concerning the banality of clothing and shoe choices, men almost always respond quickly resulting in immediate success or oftentimes swift tragedy. Lady Marchmain, where Sebastian is concerned, gets bogged down and spends much of her time consulting and trying to win over others who could be of assistance. Sebastian needs the manliness of a straight-shooter to guide him. Instead his reactionary retreat into the feminine glaringly manifests in his near hysterical attachment to his teddy-bear, then to Charles, and finally Kurt.

Charles is the odd heterosexual man who seems to skirt genders; he is an artist, but he is obsessed with the painting of rigid architectural forms. This tension is wholly apparent in the work of Michelangelo, especially in the Ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Here, Michelangelo neurotically tries to keep masculine beauty from tipping over into the feminine and the soft; hence the preoccupation with an almost chiseled hardness and emphasis on the torso that is most obvious in the figure of Christ at “The Last Judgment.” But in modern gay male art and photography, the fixation with masculinity always looks desperate and the image becomes what the viewer most fears – it looks uncomfortably “gay” – as in the foundational work created by Tom of Finland. Homosexual men subconsciously recognize this and it creates panic: in some this precipitates a further exploration of the extreme possibilities and in others, such as Sebastian, addiction. This fear taken to the extreme results in fragmentation as evidenced in the myriad of headless torso and crotch shots on Grindr. The male is reduced to his most evident masculine parts.

Away from the protective confines of his family and the loyal Charles, Sebastian descends fairly quickly into the depths of debauchery and devastation. After their last encounter with each other, with an ache of unavoidable failure, Charles says to himself: “There was nothing more I could do for Sebastian.” Here, albeit feebly, Charles is able to walk away from his self-destructive friend. But the memory of Sebastian will haunt him. Years later, at the Flyte family estate, he would recall: “I had not forgotten Sebastian; every stone of the house had a memory of him…” Whereas Lady Marchmain was the mother who couldn’t let her prodigal son go, Charles was the friend who regretfully did.

Ultimately, like the wayward boy from The Bible, Sebastian ends up half-dead and alone. With his lover and friends gone, and the illusions of happiness smashed, he turns towards home. But not the house of his family, he literally turns towards God. Cordelia once reminded Charles of a story read aloud by her mother on the night Sebastian became terribly drunk:

“…with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

In my experience, I think this hope is the very best the family and friends of a “gay” individual can pray for. But it requires saying – goodbye. Because the lost can never return, if they having nothing to return to. This is the sad irony of the family who celebrate the gayness of a son or daughter as well as the self-serving gay-affirmative ministries which have been allowed to thrive in predominantly gay neighborhoods. They keep the suffering soul imprisoned within the family drama of the protective smothering mother against the rejecting father; this is a cornerstone of current Catholic gay-affirmative LGBT outreach which portrays the patriarchal Church as an essentially oppressive figure. In the somewhat transgender world of “Brideshead Revisited,” this idea is represented as Sebastian’s mother. Her failure to help her son is in part due to the fact that the original wound in Sebastian was not caused by her, but by the father. So in his return to faith, Sebastian will eventually knock on the door of an all-male monastic community.

But there, his healing is not complete nor all-encompassing. According to Cordelia, he intermittingly struggles with his old addiction. Through this continual relapse and rise, he finds his rightful place. Cordelia says to Charles: “…there are usually a few odd hangers-on in a religious house, you know; people who can’t quite fit in either the world or the monastic rule.”

In many ways, I have often thought of myself, and many of those who once believed in the false succor of homosexuality, as a kind of Sebastian Flute. It’s as if hunger and thirst, and our wandering in the desert, heighted our sense of smell and we could then sniff out the presence of buried water. We had vainly sucked at the dry tit of men and our incessant screams for nourishment brought with it an essential appreciation for the full bellied satisfaction we receive from the hearty words of truth. Without it, we know that we are once again reduced to scrambling for crumbs. Hence, we tend to huddle about certain priests, religious, parishes, chapels, and shrines where the fare is bountiful.

However, in many of us, there is an incessant draw back towards the empty promises of homosexuality. It’s the well offering water that leaves us thirsty, but we keep returning to it. For some, this setback from chastity takes place when we seek out the enveloping warmth of another man’s arms. In others, it’s the temporary intoxicating effects of gay pornography. When we inevitably return to partial sobriety, we come to our senses and begin to stumble back towards Christ. As Cordelia predicted would become a cycle in the life of her brother, we collapse at the gate of the monastery and ring the bell hoping the porter will hear us; sometimes we are laying unconscious, yet our bodies are discovered and dragged inside to the infirmary. Every time, the doors is always opened to us. Often, I have experienced this unwillingness to stay within the cloister garden of God. Although, my wounds are tended to and healing, from the monastery window I can see the expansive desert beyond the wall and for a few moments the blistering undulating heat-waves of a mirage bend into the image of an oasis. And I go there. We stay for awhile, blissfully splashing in the imaginary pool. Then, we dip our hands into the crystalline blue water only to taste hot sand upon our lips. The flesh begins to burn, our tongue swells and we long for the comforting refreshment of home.

Sometimes for a few days, sometimes for many years, we hear a whispering voice tumbled upon the wind and dust slightly pushing up against the outside walls of our sanctuary. Unable to resist, we open the doors and proceed to follow it; wherever that may go. When we realize that we have once again been duped, we rush to bath ourselves and rinse the dirt of shame from our body. We beg forgiveness and begin again. It seems as if we are trapped, between two worlds.

When Christ saved me from the near inevitability of death, He found my abandoned corpse on the wayside. He threw me over His shoulder and carried my near lifeless body to a place of healing and safety. Less than a year later, I was staying at a Benedictine Monastery in France. As a male pilgrim, I was allowed to stay in the guest house and I had unrestricted access to an intermediary park-like area next to the monastery that was walled in, but not part of the cloister. Since it was the Easter holiday season during my visit, several of the younger novices could greet their families here. For not much more than an hour, they would talk, laugh and share a small sweet snack with the loved ones they probably hadn’t seen in a year. Off in the shadows, under a large group of trees, I sat with my sketchpad and pencil and tried to record these memories on paper. It was a strange intermediary zone, where those who were protected from the fallen world briefly came near the door to the outside. In my fear of falling, I wanted to smash through the locked cloister and hide among the candles and Gregorian chants. Today, I realize that some, including myself, belong in this odd space next to the ancient monastery walls and the open expanse of the encroaching desert of diversions. Our redemption is in our return, and even our collapse at the gate. We struggle, we occasionally rise above our passions and weaknesses, and sometimes we give into every perverse thought that whips through our head, but we always turn around, squint our eyes, and search the distance for the little speck on the flat-line of the horizon that marks our place of refuge. Even if the last movement of our will is fall to earth, we will summon every remaining bit of strength that remains in a single fiber of muscle, to pull ourselves back to God. And, in that final moment, if all we can do is barely touch with a single finger the golden door to salvation, we will rest in finally knowing peace.

Cordelia recognizes the “maimed” state of her brother as his allotted form of suffering that will eventually lead to holiness. Charles only pities his once glamorous friend. But Cordelia sees the “thwarted passion” of both Sebastian and Charles. For, Charles is now involved in an adulterous relationship with Julia.

For many months, since their chance meeting on a Transatlantic voyage back to England, Charles and Julia, both estranged from their loveless marriages, have sought refuge in the arms of the other. As Waugh described, they are “orphans of the storm.” This same kind of earnest desire for companionship and comfort, which tossed Sebastian into a perverse and sick relationship with another man, draws together Charles and Julia. Albeit there is a difference in that Julia’s form of wayward wanderings are seemingly less dysfunctional than Sebastian where his conflict with faith caused alcoholism, but in Julia she seems to unsteadily remain on the line that separates propriety and chaos. Her position is primarily due to the wealth of her family and the resulting insular environment that precludes criticism. This curious form of relativism has spread to global proportions as well as on the micro-level in the family. The near universal acceptance of homosexuality in the West consequently created an atmosphere of activist inspired ask-no-questions approval and tolerance that automatically identifies any counter analysis as inherently homophobic. Therefore, the family should reflect this cultural progression towards further enlightenment with individual members showing their willingness to reorientate old outdated ways of thinking through their acceptance of diverse forms of sexual expression and identity. In “Brideshead Revisited,” these changing mores are concentrated in the decadence of the upper-classes. Today, this seemingly sophisticated attitude pervades the working and middle-class.

In “Brideshead Revisited,” the crucial turning-point occurs rather unnoticeably during an uneventful after-dinner conversation between Brideshead, Julia, and Charles. In the middle of the polite discourse, Bridey drops one of his “bombshells.” The once terminally indecisive bachelor is going to marry. Julia enthusiastically asks to meet her future sister-in-law and asks Bridey to bring his fiancée to the family home where she and Charles are now residing. He immediately explains why that is impossible. Beryl, the woman he is going to marry, is not unlike their mother: pious and devout, but she is also provincial and unlikely to be indifferent to Julia’s open adultery. This slight, delivered in Brideashead’s characteristic coolness and indifference, causes Julia to rage at her brother. She storms out and Charles tries to comfort her. But there is no solace that he can give which will elevate Julia’s torment:

Mummy carrying my sin with her to church, bowed under it and the black lace veil, in the chapel; slipping out with it in London before the fires were lit; taking it with her through the empty streets, where the milkman’s ponies stood with their forefeet on the pavement; mummy dying with my sin eating at her, more cruelly than her own deadly illness.

Mummy dying with it; Christ dying with it, nailed hand and foot…

The momentary shock of truth from Brideshead elicits a powerful reaction in Julia; first anger, then remorse. As for Charles, all he can say to Brideshead is: “Bridey, what a bloody offensive thing to say to Julia!” But is it offensive?

While Julia’s rather offish tactless brother lacks her and Sebastian’s facility with conversational elegance, according to Charles, Bridey “had a kind of mad certainty about everything which made his decisions swift and easy.” But from his somewhat removed standpoint as a cool observer, Brideshead watched as his eldest sister moved from flapper to marrying a divorcee (outside the Church) to becoming another man’s mistress. His dispassionate assessment of the situation is remarkably similar to his critique of Sebastian’s alcoholism. Later, Julia, in her anguish over Bridey’s one sentence remonstration, recalls the “black and white” of the catechism. Charles finds this attitude simultaneously appalling and ridiculous; he remarks: “Bridey, if I ever felt for a moment like becoming a Catholic, I should only have to talk to you for five minutes to be cured.” The same situation almost repeats itself when Charles confronts Bridey about his reproval of Julia:

There is nothing she should object to. I was merely stating a fact well known to her.

Years earlier, the addicted and miserable Sebastian claims to Charles “that I am happy, I rather think Julia isn’t.” In both cases, Sebastian and Julia have sought to escape the trauma of their father abandoning the family, through the mind-numbing diversions of debauchery and excess. The route taken by Sebastian was the more intoxicating and precipitous with the gay decadence of the 1920s eerily similar to the pre-AIDS era of the discotheque. Sebastian’s hardcore riotous living flames out rather quickly while Julia’s smoldering restlessness does a slow burn. The separate courses taken by either sibling, though differing in duration and intensity, both finished at the same dead-end of discontent and hopelessness. Yet, as was the case with Sebastian, because homosexuality was not widely accepted during his time, there is this anxious rush by the family to do something about his problem. With Julia, because of her station and on account of being heterosexual, there is at least the pretense of normalcy in past and present transgressions that is bared false in her “squalid” wedding performed under Protestant rites at an out-of-the-way chapel. But before Julia’s wedding to the non-Catholic divorced Rex Mottram, Bridey drops his first bombshell in an attempt to correct the situation and again rather bluntly advises Julia to take the correct moral path – to not marry her fiancé. In 1970, pioneering gay rights activist Carl Wittman decried the push by some homosexuals for a gay equivalency to heterosexual marriage predicating that the eventual outcome would result in a sort of “burlesque” simulacrum of the original archetype. In the 1990s, I subconsciously realized that as a guest at a few male same-sex weddings held in backyards and on beaches officiated over by a hippie priest in a rainbow printed caftan. It too felt oddly squalid.

After Julia’s marriage to Rex, and the death of her mother, what is politely accepted within the remaining family is continuously lowered with the passage of time. Bridey is unapproving, Cordleia is heartbroken, but they remain largely silent until that fateful night after dinner. Then, the sandcastles of complacency and property come falling down. In Julia, the revelation of her sin is the turning-point in her life thus far. Julia sees her mother, despite the ill attempts to act as both the authoritative head of the family and the compassionate protector, in the role of St. Monica to the rebellious Augustine: carrying about the offenses of her children; never living long enough to see their conversion; and thus taking it to the grave. The incident with Bridey begins a rather rapid return to the faith for Julia – the thread has been twitched.

Something dramatically similar happened to me – again, in a sort of way that seemed extremely ordinary. Like Julia, I had become entrenched and uneasily comfortable within my own circle of friends all of whom casually defended my chosen set of personal (always fluctuating) principles, by doing and saying nothing to me. During those years, I drifted in and out of my parent’s home while I left behind a scattering of wafting glitter and the smell of organic tobacco. For awhile, my parents tolerated my various comings and goings although I knew that my increasingly disturbed appearance frightened my mother and disgusted my father. This was partially the reaction I was going for; because as Cordilia observed, my disappointment with life, the lingering anger over past insults and rejections, and an irrational need to blame someone, was transferred to my hapless parents. While for a time my father and mother became temporarily lax Catholics, my father kept around the house the outside symbols of his Faith; in particular, what I thought was a repulsive icon of Our Lady and the Child Jesus. It stared at me whenever I entered the front door. I saw her as disapproving. In a way, she duplicated the hushed reproach of my father.

One day, as I was about to leave and go nonchalantly back to my life in San Francisco, my father dropped a bombshell. That visit, I brought along with me a couple of friends who were arguably the most outrageous looking pair I knew. The whole time we were there, my mother offered a forced smile, although she was glad I was home and well, while my father silently grimaced in the corner. After I left, I knew he would discuss my further downward slide into nothingness with her. “What’s wrong with your son?” But he didn’t do that. As I was about to leave, and my friends were already waiting for me in the car, my dad said: “Don’t ever come back here with them.” His matter-of-fact resolute certainty rivaled Brideshead. At that moment I was more like the angry Charles than the distraught Julia. I stormed out vowing to never return. Yet, like Julia, my conscience had been stirred up and I would never be the same again. Although I quickly disregarded what my father said and thought of those words as unenlightened bigotry, in the back of my brain, I knew that somewhere in the world of confusion and moral relativism – there was a place of certainty. Years later, I would make a final desperate journey to that place.

Williams Holman Hunt, “The Awakening Conscience” (1853).

I think in his own subconscious way, my father was attempting to “twitch upon the thread.” He was trying to shake back some semblance of the son he once knew. Largely, it didn’t work, in that my conscience was not awakened in a dramatic moment of self-realization, but it did offer me a way out. The tragedy for many remains in the fact they have nowhere else to go.

“Surely I was made for some other purpose than this?”

In an age of absolute acceptance, the question proposed at the end of “Brideshead Revisited” goes unheard and unanswered. As a relative or friend of someone who identities as LGBT, I think there are probably only two ways to approach this; and both are examined in “Brideshead Revisited.” The first was most fully realized in Lady Marchmain’s often tortured attempt to somehow right her wayward son Sebastian. Her genuine concern often became unknowingly cloying and manipulative. Unlike Bridey, Lady Marchmain couldn’t act or speak with a detached frankness that was sometimes required and she became forced into recruiting often fawning and weak men who she thought could assist her cause. The tough love that Sebastian requires, he never gets from his dad, who isn’t around and remains too busy with his own life and mistress and the maternal instincts of his mother to protect are too conflicted and hinder anything decisive. Here, Bridey should have decisively stepped in, but he lacks empathy. Therefore, Sebastian drifts deeper and deeper into self-destruction. This tragic downward spiral mirrors the existence of many gay men who continually confront the pervasive specter of loneliness with a further entrenchment into a more preserve sexual landscape that often results in disease and eventual death.

The second approach is the complacency and comfortable acceptance which surrounds Julia. Disapproval is often simmering underneath the surface, but very little is ever said. In these sorts of families, the toxic brew of moral relativism becomes stagnant and solidifies into the comfort and superiority of non-interference and non-judgment. Furthermore, in lackadaisical culture, there is a progressive normalization which nullifies any lingering unacceptability. Oftentimes, there are several routes to even sacramentalize the once forbidden as in Julia’s first mad dash to the altar, turning her back on Catholicism and marrying in the reformed and less restrictive Anglican tradition. Today we see a direct parallel in those once Catholic families who casually abandon their limp faith because a son or daughter couldn’t marry a same-sex partner in the Church. But in the Flyte family, as in most families with a history of Catholicism, there is always at least one member who doesn’t go quietly along. In “Brideshead Revisited” it’s actually Julia’s mother and Cordelia, but they tend to remain rather stoic and silent. Bridey is the sole holdout who will out-of-turn open his mouth; although only when it begins to affect him personally. In my experience, this is often the case in modern families when a thoughtful leaning couple is confronted by the reality of exposing young children to the same-sex hand-holding of a relative at the occasional birthday gathering or Christmas celebration. At this point, the rightly concerned and conscientious parent will reevaluate their attendance and involvement. Yet, oftentimes, those who should speak-up, the parents of the LGBT child, are precisely those individuals less likely to do so. A scenario I repeatedly saw with my male gay friends was the ever-present mother songbird who endlessly and soothingly chirped while incessantly sitting on her hatched eggs – keeping them safe and warm, as dad flew away or incongruently looked on from his perch in another tree. Sometimes there needs to be a loud eagle-like screech to disrupt this seemingly happy little picture.

If you do this, you will inevitably be seen, to the same extent Charles perceived Bridey, as “offensive,” “cold-blooded,” and an incredibly out-of-touch curmudgeon and bigoted “old booby.” But I think every gay man or woman needs a person such as this in their life. As Sebastian once quipped to Charles: “Oh dear, it’s very difficult being a Catholic.” Only many would rather bend, ignore, or seek to outright change what is expected of those with same-sex attraction all in the name of mercy. But mercy is ultimately only God’s to give. The Mercy of God is always available, but it is our choice to accept it or not. In her last conversation with Charles, Julia said it well:

“I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy.”

In the end, Sebastian, Julia, and even the tenaciously doubtful Charles, who grew up on a modicum of Christian religious instruction, are consecutively tugged or yanked to a belief in something greater than themselves. Some reach-out of their stubbornness and worldliness from a place of desperation and encroaching mortality, others out of guilt, and in the case of Charles – because he is alone and has nothing to believe in.

To varying degrees, they all attempted to autonomously-generate order from the chaos of their lives. Every experiment: Sebastian’s homosexuality, the struggle by Julia to ignore her conscience, and the agnosticism of Charles, are an abysmal failure. The make-believe worlds that they inhabited, a place where we create our own realities, prove to be incredibly unstable. Sebastian moves from one obsession to another – with alcohol remaining his sole savior from pain; when Julia starts her affair with Charles, she is recovering from a failed extramarital romance; Charles can’t find contentment anywhere. Subsequently, their lives become more complicated and progressively darker. Before, what seemed like little slips, small allowances made for the frail human condition, become bigger sins. As a result, especially for Sebastian, their return to Truth is dramatic. It’s remarkably telling that Sebastian finally finds a place of refuge at a monastery – a citadel of discipline where every waking moment is guided by a rule. While he is there, at least for awhile, that nearness to holiness relieves some of his suffering. What more can any of us ask for? As Cordelia remarks to Charles after recounting the fate of Sebastian: “It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.”

3 Comments

  1. Holly June 19, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Thank you. We needed to see this commentary.

  2. Claudia Brown June 19, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    You have a very interesting, and much appreciated, take on Brideshead Revisited, based on your own related experiences. But for the story, I think you are far too lenient with both Lady Marchmain and Charles. Lady Marchmain is a gargoyle of pro forma piety who cannot, will not, see the damage she does to Sebastian by hovering over him with forms of concern while stifling the life out of him. Charles observes the change in Sebastian’s mode of drinking, from youthful excess to neurotic self-destruction, and it is his mother’s smothering (with the help of her henchmen, Samgrass and Msgr. Bell) that is entirely responsible for the transition to full-bore alcoholism. Charles, for his part, wounds Sebastian through his penchant for thinking of himself as detached and clever enough to play Lady M’s games without becoming her ally. At the end of the day, he stands as impotent spectator to Sebastian’s fall, lacking enough love to intervene and help the supposed object of his first deep affection. It is Cordelia who is the beacon through all this mess, consumed with love and loved in return, who also understands how Charles’s love is stunted, Julia’s misdirected, and Sebastian’s fulfilled. Sebastian himself gives us a clue when he speaks of himself as a pathetic creature who has found someone (Kurt) to whom even he can practice charity. Julia, and finally Charles, come very late in the game to understanding what love is. I think it’s open to question whether Lady Marchmain ever understood it at all.

  3. buckyinky August 9, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    I have enjoyed reading your thoughts on one of my favorite novels – thank you. I have a strong disagreement with something foundational to your understanding of the story, viz., that in Waugh’s creation Sebastian was ever engaged in the practice of sodomy with anyone, to say nothing of Charles Ryder.

    At the very least Waugh leaves the question, if indeed he even intended the question to be raised, unanswered. Whereas there is no uncertainty of Antony Blanche’s habitual practices, the author making this clear through Blanche’s monologues and haunts, there are no such confirming signals from the author of Sebastian or Charles.

    On the contrary, we are led to believe that as to outward sin, with the exception of mischief in drunken pranks on Mr. Samgrass or the like, they are innocent. As in the mistress Cara’s commentary to Charles on the essentially innocent, if now overripe or late in season, love between C and S, and the English custom of boyish friendships in general. As in C’s exasperated denial of “anything vicious” between S and Kurt when Bridey raises the question in considering whether to send financial support to S in North Africa. As in the silence of anyone among the devout Catholic members of the family throughout the whole book on the subject of S engaging in sodomy, when clearly there is no ignorance among them of what constitutes mortal sin, nor an abashedness to identify it.

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